Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Sermon for Charles Dickens’s 200th Anniversary

Sexagesima 12th February 2012

For the sermon this evening I have announced my intention of a theological reflection upon the work of Charles Dickens, in this his 200th anniversary. But which Dickens will we discuss? There is the Dickens we know as the champion of the poor; and the Dickens who largely created the Victorian Christmas not only with his ‘A Christmas Carol’ but also with his ‘Christmas books’; there is the Dickens of the public performances; there is the Dickens who appears in his published letters, and the Dickens who especially used St Matthew’s Gospel and was very familiar with the Book of Common Prayer. But, what I hope I might achieve instead is to help draw out the religious underpinning of Dickens’s literary imagination.

Remember now, if you can, Holman Hunt’s painting known as ‘The Light of the World’ (1853-54). I am confident that you are familiar with the painting. If you can I want you to try and see it in your mind’s eye. It is an allegorical painting representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me". According to Hunt: "I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good subject…" The door in the painting has no handle, and can therefore only be opened from the inside, representing "the obstinately shut mind". Hunt, even 50 years after painting it, felt he had to explain the symbolism. The painting seized the popular religious imagination of the time; it drew huge crowds and went on a world tour (the original is in Keble College, Oxford, and he made a life-size copy for St Paul’s in London). I will come back to this painting in a moment.

For the moment it is enough to say that we can be confident that Dickens was familiar with Hunt’s painting and with the work of others of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was not especially well-disposed to the school: for instance he wrote a scathing review of Millais’s immensely controversial painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ when it was exhibited at the Tate. It shows Joseph at his workbench and the young Jesus having just had a nail taken from his hand. Dickens accused Millais of portraying Mary as an alcoholic who looks “so hideous in her ugliness that … she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.” He claimed that Millais presented our Saviour as a "wry-necked boy in a nightgown who seems to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter" and the Holy Family look like “alcoholics and slum-dwellers”

In Dickens’s extravagant language I suggest we recognize not just the critic entertaining his readers with a lively demolition-job but that he is enraged; that he sees the work as blasphemous. Dickens is furious because he sees in Millais’s realism a serious detraction from the idealised concept of the Holy Family that he held dear and which flows into various aspects of his work. Millais had touched a nerve in Dickens!

Now come back to Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. There we see the kingly Christ, bearing the light in the dark wood of the world, and rapping gently at the door of the shut or darkened mind – now that is a painting that tells a story, it tells a story that one can live by. Hunt’s style is realist but it is, as he described it, a symbolic realism. And the same concept, I suggest to you, is at the very heart of Dickens religious imagination and forms the guiding principle of the great novels. Where Hunt paints with a symbolic realism, Dickens writes with a mythic realism: a shaping master-narrative – the Christian story – informs his vision. In short, he brings to the novel what we might call a ‘mythic’ imagination; a story to live by. This gives an underlying unity to what can otherwise seem a meandering and sprawling narrative – and think of the practicalities of him publishing books in monthly episodes – how difficult it would have been to have kept some inner coherence! I suggest that running through all the realism of Dickens’s narrative, and holding it together (even as month by month fresh sections of David Copperfield were published) is an underlying Christian mythos.

The locked door, the shut mind, the foolish deluded heroes of Dickens’s greatest narratives repeatedly demonstrate variations on the great Christian story of salvation - enfolding all who lose their way in the world’s wood, who fail to see the true source and goal of their lives and who only later grow to grasp the truth and figuratively to ‘see the light’. One may rightly consider the parable of the Prodigal Son as a masterful paradigm of this theme but Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ images it visually with Christ bearing the light in a dark place.

Dickens’s heroines are often bearers of the light of the world – and Agnes in David Copperfield is a good example. At the close of that long and wandering novel, after all the errors and misadventures, David eloquently acknowledges the light that is Agnes Wickfield.

…one face, shining on me like a Heavenly light by which I see all other objects, is above them and beyond them all. And that remains.

I turn my head, and see it, in its beautiful serenity, beside me. My lamp burns low, and I have written far into the night; but the dear presence without which I were nothing, bears me company.

O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!

Agnes helps David in his journey from darkness to light; she is his light, his type of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, and the Light of the World. Yes, I am suggesting that her name is no mere coincidence but part of the greater shaping vision that structures the work.

If Dickens’s imagination is, as I argue, essentially formed by the great Christian narrative of salvation it is also given further substance and resource by the many ways in which he deploys his knowledge of scripture. So, in the second book of Samuel we find the story of King David as the King of Judah: and there we also find the account of how the King desired the wife of the Hittite Uriah, and arranged for his death in battle. How extraordinary then that Dickens has his David (Copperfield) similarly engage with Uriah (a most un-English name); compete with him for the affections of a woman (Agnes); and, while not arranging his death, dream of it more than once – as he says ‘I believe I had a delirious idea of seizing the red-hot poker out of the fire and running him through with it.’ One speculates how deliberately Dickens made such an association in his work.

We see operating through the pages of David Copperfield, mainly through the heroine Agnes Wickfield, a testimony of light, an ethic of all that is won for humanity through the gift of the constant, tirelessly serving, selfless life. This ethic is what many would claim as our true Dickens, the Dickens we best like to remember: ‘the opponent of social injustice in the name of all victims, especially children, the orphaned, magistrate-hounded, mistaught, neglected, half-starved Olivers, little Dicks, Nells, Smikes, Dorrits, Davids, Jos, Pips wandering in the wilderness (Dickens’s figure) of an uncaring because still un-Christian world: ’ a world of debtors’ prisons and squalid rookeries, of corruption in high places and greedy City bankers – perhaps not so unlike our own time after all.

It is said that when Dickens wrote Great Expectations he re-read David Copperfield to prevent himself from any ‘unconscious repetitions’. The personal elements of the Expectations story were strong, especially in the vulnerable young Pip wandering in the darkness and marshes. The underlying creative religious vision, with its pattern of moving from error (or sin), through repentance to regeneration holds true but in Great Expectations an emphasis on forgiveness comes to the fore. The failure to forgive and its consequences are most powerfully imaged in the ghastly haunted figure of Miss Havisham and her death by fire.

The figure of Estella (the name signifies a star) is ‘The Light of the World’ for Pip, though she throws a much more diffident and ambiguous light than David’s Agnes. Yet light she is and at the close of Great Expectations (an ending notoriously worked over by Dickens) it is the evening, the time of star-rise, when Pip visits the site of Satis House and chances upon Estella. The words they exchange are luminously charged with grace and forgiveness and these two human figures (symbolically the latest Adam and Eve) leave the ruined garden with a new light about them.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.’ GE,493

The Christian mythos that shaped Dickens’s imagination and subtly informed his greatest works, still has the imaginative power to subtly reach his readers today; to make us question how we live and relate to others; what it means to live honourably and – to bear the light of Christ in the world.

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